Scrolling on TikTok, you could come across anything: A lost 2000s fashion brand, a skit mocking someone's family member, a lip synced mashup of Cuppcake and ABBA. Or, if you're lucky, a beautiful alien named Gena Marvin.
With nearly 900,000 followers on the platform, Marvin's videos skew towards the surreal. Her fashion sense takes more from sci-fi costumes than streetwear trends. Hallmarks of her look include latex, long fingerlike gloves, Born This Way-era platform heels and ghost white makeup.
In one TikTok, she'll dart across a tree-lined path in front of an incoming biker. In another, she walks down a train station platform as people try not to stare. In another, she boards a Ferris wheel. Central to all of her work is the shock of seeing such an otherworldly creature in a mundane setting.
That setting is not one that's friendly to visually queer figures. Gena lives in Russia, a country that has banned "Gay Propaganda" since 2013, making it illegal to talk about LGBTQ people. Homophobia and fear of the unknown plague Marvin's existence, and are central to her art.
With this series of photos for PAPER, Gena takes her progressive prettiness and places it alongside symbols of the Russian establishment. In doing so she posits that her queer vision of beauty is as Russian as the scenery behind her.
Below, is a conversation we had over email with the help of Google translator.
How did the idea for these photos come about?
Ideas in my head are born at the end of the earth, on the shell of a turtle. Radicalism gives birth to the way out from the closet and the great absurdity. For three weeks in a row in Moscow there was a very strong heat and every day was a challenge, the temperature ranged from 86 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. One day they announced the hottest day of this summer. City authorities recommended using umbrellas and light-colored clothes, and there were signs [saying], "Do not sit down," on the benches. So the idea was to go out in latex and find out what it is like to be on the hottest day of the year in a suit that does not breathe and has control over you. Meditation.
How did you meet @blackeyedalien who appears in the photos with you?
Instagram. When you do conceptual art and share it on social media, you have the opportunity to gather a lot of incredible creators around you. Misha does it very beautifully, although having a completely opposite approach to dressing up.
What's the significance of the fountain in the photos?
The VDNKh Park in Moscow is well known for its great past. Its choice as a location for a performance was due to its USSR irrelevance, pretentiousness and utopia.
What's the significance of the building with the columns?
I love it so much to take photos against the background of everything that has Russian symbols as a sign of the fight against homophobia and to provoke a vivid discussion on the propagandistic TV channels to increase visibility. It works.
How did the woman with the green umbrella react?
The reaction of adults is interesting, interesting to study. The woman with the umbrella accurately conveyed the mood of the park and the time when self-expression and art were forbidden, again on the edge. This is not a conflict of generations, a woman with an umbrella just happened to be at the right time and in the right place and did not mind taking a couple of photos.
In Russia LGBTQ people are still very much demonized by the government. Why lean into this depiction by dressing like monsters (claws, horns) instead of trying to present more traditional and possibly appeal to more mainstream ideas of beauty?
First of all, I want to say that what I am doing certainly has a strong and vivid LGBTQ+ meaning, you can find lots of works on my Instagram and TikTok. But it is not the sole factor on my path.
Generally, I am trying to convey to people that everything we see, everything that surrounds us, has a tremendous importance in our life. "Monsters, freaks" — with these words most people devalue what I do and more, my existence.
But the conversation is not about that. I see my art and myself as a symbol of freedom not only here in Russia — Gena's humane image is the way for all of us. Changing attitudes in clothes, everyday life and behavior, I believe will lead us people to a future about which we talk so much but it still doesn't exist. We always want to be ahead of time, but its pace can be accelerated not by technology, but by the comprehension of the most basic things that help us to live in comfort.
You're in St. Petersburg. Have you found a queer community there? I know there's a woman Sasha Kazantseva making a website O-zine about queer culture.
I lived in St. Petersburg for the last three years. My performance at a protest in support of Alexey Navalny in April had consequences after which I decided to move to Moscow to push even harder. The bottom line is that the way justice is decided in Russia is very offensive. I was expelled from college where I had left just one year to study. I have lost the meaning of education in Russia as this is already the second college where I faced the problems of homophobia. Of course, in St. Petersburg I found those people who supported me — my friends, the artist community, the organization "ComingOut," which completely took my harassment case in a taxi on its shoulders this spring.
What was your performance at a protest in support of Alexey Navalny in April? What did you do?
On Sunday I knew that there would be a rally in support of Alexey Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition. I had already been at my first rally, but only as a part of a crowd. My support wasn't sufficient. On the 21st of April I was the voice of Russia, my homeland. I was tied with tricolor. I was a part of the protest and was walking with all the people, but we weren't equal to each other. I was a symbol of the fear people always leave behind their doors. I kept silent with my arms tied above all the people, in my red heels.
Never had I experienced any fears wearing my tape costumes. That rally was really tough, though successful. The whole next week I refused to give any comment on what happened to mass media and experienced horrible pain in my body and headaches. This gave me the understanding of what a political drag is and that my safety costs nothing.
What was the incident in the taxi you mentioned previously?
I called a taxi to return back home from my friend's place. I was in drag but Russian winters are killing me, so I left on my makeup and redressed in comfy clothes. Halfway to the house, the taxi driver began to try and persuade me to have sex by asking terrible questions. When heard it, I forgot how to move. It was terrible but I tried to keep talking to him neutrally, avoiding all his questions and requests. When we drove to my house I left the car and he followed me yelling that I must be killed and all these requests were just jokes. I filmed all this in horror and posted on Instagram. The next day the taxi service called me and without any excuse said that the taxi driver would be fired. This is not the first time taxi drivers have attacked passengers, and every single time this company says that they will fire an employee but this never happens. So ComingOut found me, they took all the materials that I had and we filed a statement to the police and Yandex (the taxi service) and, of course, the taxi driver. And now for half a year we have been waiting for the consideration of our case and any work on it.
When you're walking around in public in a look do you ever get scared? How do you face that fear?
I am always scared to go out in my costumes, because it is still very dangerous here in Russia. I believe this is a genetically inherent fear, which people absorbed during the terrible years of repression in the Soviet Union, and it will take many decades for this stigma to disappear. The glances of people do not scare me as much as the thoughts that are born in their minds when I go out into the street in my costumes.
When you are under the spotlight not just in jeans and ordinary jacket, but in high heels, latex suit and with a shaved head, you become more vulnerable. On my social networks I read a lot, both good and bad, about myself. People do not hesitate to express their position, but nevertheless I feel safe. But when I go out, it's instantly clear that I am in danger.
I'm always in awe when I'm getting ready to go out again, but the fear disappears when I'm fully ready. I become confident and strong no matter what is waiting for me out there. Beauty will save the world. In my case, beauty will save me.
What sound do you love?
Pushing the lighter.
What sound do you hate?
The murmur of a fountain.
What's your favorite word?
What's your least favorite word?
What are your plans now that you're in Moscow?
Moscow... devote myself completely to creativity. Go into this headlong and forget all the humanlike things that once belonged to me.
Photography: Misha Fedoseev